Caesar, Claudius and the Elephants

It was midnight before the wind turned. All day the soldiers of the VII and the X Legions had been embarking onto the transport ships. Only eighty were assembled in the harbour at Boulogne, and more than 100 men in full armour, carrying all their weapons and kit, had been crammed onto the decks of each ship. Legionaries were much happier tramping the metalled roads of the fast-expanding Roman Empire and may well have been apprehensive as their heavily laden ships bobbed at anchor, waiting for the entire expedition to be ready to sail. They faced a journey into the unknown, a voyage across the Ocean, a real danger of being swept out into the vastness of the open sea.

As evening approached and a waxing moon rose in the sky, the sea-captains at last made ready and hoisted sails to catch the freshening wind. It would, it should, blow the invasion fleet on a north-westerly course across the Channel. In the moonshine, lookouts hoped soon to make out the white cliffs of Britannia, luminous in the summer dark, and use them as a sea-mark to guide their steersmen. The late August of 55 BC, the 25th, was indeed late to be mounting such an audacious expedition, but Julius Caesar was indeed an audacious general.

Most of the staff officers and their daring commander sailed on warships, and they led the fleet out of the safety of Boulogne and the calm estuary of the River Liane. Powered by banks of oars, they depended a little less on the vagaries of the elements than the eighteen transports which had been allocated the more awkward business of taking a force of 500 cavalrymen across the Channel. Their embarkation had been delayed and, in order to catch up, the troopers rode north, up the coast road to Ambleteuse where they again failed to embark and join the main fleet. The wind and the tide had turned against them.

Caesar pressed on and, by dawn, his lookouts will have seen the ghostly shapes of the white cliffs looming out of the grey light. From East Wear Bay and around the blunt headland at South Foreland, the high chalk cliffs were often sailors’ first sight of Britain. By mid morning the little harbour at Dover had come into view. But there was no possibility of a landing. Strung out along the cliffs overlooking the harbour were thousands of British warriors. Battle-horns blaring, weapons rattling against their shields, chariots drawn up, the warbands of the southern kings had come to defend their island, roaring defiance across the waves.


Climate change in ancient times is difficult to discern but sea-levels appear to have fluctuated a good deal. Calais and its harbour are much nearer the Kentish coast than Boulogne, and on a clear day the white cliffs can often be made out. So why did the Romans prefer to sail from Boulogne? Because in 55 BC and AD 43 Calais and the area around it was under the sea. Now 40 kilometres inland, St Omer was then on the coast of Gaul. The English coastline also looked very different. Romney Marshes was probably under water in the winter and a waterlogged, impenetrable waste in the summer. East of Beachy Head a shallow bay cut inland where the town of Pevensey now stands. The Thames estuary had many more large islands, including Thanet, and further up the North Sea coast, the Wash reached down to Cambridge – and the Isle of Ely really was an island.

If Dover had indeed been his preferred destination, then Caesar will have been unpleasantly surprised. The massing of two legions and the gathering of an invasion fleet at Boulogne could have been no secret. When Caesar’s plans had first become known in Britain, some native kings had sent ambassadors across the Channel. They pledged obedience to Rome and promised hostages to guarantee it. Commius, a king with some authority and influence in both Britain and northern Gaul, was despatched back to Britain with the ambassadors and a brief to negotiate on Caesar’s behalf. Peaceful submission was always preferable, cheaper, and almost as glorious as victory in war. It may have been Caesar’s objective to visit Britain with an appropriate show of strength, accept promises of loyalty, and then leave without a blow being struck. But on arrival Commius was immediately arrested and the detail of Rome’s plans presumably extracted. When he saw the British kings and their warriors in battle order, arrayed along the ramparts of the white cliffs, Caesar may well have had to change those plans.

Riding at anchor in the roadsteads off Dover, the Roman warships waited until the whole fleet had come together. The heavily laden transports had made slower headway. On board his flagship Caesar held a council of war, some time in the early afternoon. In the weeks before the expedition sailed, he had sent Caius Volusenus on a reconnaissance, his warship nosing along the Kentish coast looking for good landing sites. It seems that the Romans knew that the white cliffs gave way to beaches north-east of Dover, in Sandwich Bay. As the fleet weighed anchor and made for the new landing sites, the British army shadowed it up the coast.

Somewhere near Deal, Caesar signalled his captains to steer straight and fast for the shore and run their warships up onto the beaches. They carried artillery, and arrows, slingshot and crossbow bolts could be brought to bear on the British. When the troop transports attempted to rasp up onto the shore, their weight and deep draught prevented them from getting close enough. The sea-bed shelved away steeply into the Channel, and fully armed legionaries were reluctant to jump into deep water. Their kit weighed them down and they were forced to wade a long way before they could defend themselves from British missiles. Men who did risk the deep water were fighting their way ashore in small groups only, failing to form up into the disciplined close order which could be so effective on the battlefield.

Humiliation stared hard at Caesar and his legions. And then, as sometimes happened in battle, an example of extraordinary individual bravery proved decisive. Here is Caesar’s own account:

And then, when our soldiers were still hanging back, mainly because of the depth of the water, the standard-bearer of the Tenth offered up a quick prayer and then shouted out, ‘Jump down, soldiers, unless you want to give up your eagle to the enemy; everyone will know that I at least did my duty to the Republic and my commander!’ After saying this in a loud voice he jumped off the ship and began carrying the eagle standard towards the enemy. Then our soldiers called out to each other not to allow so terrible a disgrace [as to lose the standard] and leapt down from the transport. When those on the nearby ships saw them, they followed and began to close with the enemy.

In the long and narrow confines of the beach, the legionaries gradually formed a line and pushed forward. Behind the battle, watching from his warship, Caesar could see where his men needed reinforcements. Using rowing boats, he sent small detachments to wherever weak points threatened. Closing into a tight line, protected by their long, curved shields, thrusting with their short swords, the VII and X Legions gained control.

Chasing the Roman fleet up the Channel coast to the beach landing had meant that most of the British infantry had been left behind, and their cavalry and charioteers were finding it difficult to match the well-armoured and disciplined ranks of the invaders. As the battle wore on, more and more men landed safely and the British kings signalled a retreat.

Not for the first time in this short campaign, Caesar was lucky. Although his attempts at preparatory diplomacy had failed badly and Volusenus’ reconnaissance seems to have been sadly deficient, Caesar’s famous luck had held. But it was seen as more than luck by his soldiers: it was a sign of the gods’ favour. Well-omened is a clumsy alternative meaning for the Latin felix, or lucky, but it conveys something of how it was understood. Luck did not come from nowhere.

Once the beach had been cleared, Caesar’s tactical instinct would have been to pursue the British inland and inflict as heavy a defeat as possible. Most casualties in battle came in the aftermath when men were cut down as they fled. But the cavalry had still not arrived, and so Caesar was forced to secure only the immediate hinterland. Having fought long and hard, probably into the evening, the legionaries were forced to set to and build a marching camp on the beachhead to protect their position.

Beyond the freshly dug ditches and ramparts an unknown land stretched far to the north. From the Greek traveller Pytheas of Massilia, and other writers, the Romans knew that Britain was a large and long island. But it lay on the far side of the dangerous Ocean and, as the legionaries lay down exhausted in their leather tents, they will have wondered what the morning would hold.


A legionary’s training, experience, uniform and kit combined into a valuable investment, which Rome took care of. When her armies took the field, doctors and first-aid orderlies were right behind them. Medici, legionary doctors, carried a bag full of evil-looking instruments: fierce forceps, razor-sharp scalpels, hooks and clamps were all designed to deal with puncture wounds (and the removal of foreign bodies such as arrowheads), severe cuts and bone breaks. The doctors knew that the minutes immediately following a bad wound were critical, and their orderlies, capsarii, carried bandages to staunch heavy bleeding on the battlefield so that injured men could be safely removed behind the lines, where the medici set to work with their toolkit of alarming instruments. There was no anaesthetic, but more importantly no antibiotic. What the medici feared most was the onset of infection and, unlike modern doctors – and patients – they did not care at all if they inflicted pain as they cut away damaged tissue or cleaned out bad wounds. In fact, it would help if the agony caused a man to faint.

In the ranks of Celtic armies, medical help is not recorded, and no recognisable surgical instruments have yet been found. But the principles and practices of Celtic medicine have survived. Although the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had the effect of wiping out much of Britain’s so-called ‘folk medicine’ – the herbal and traditional cures passed down through uncounted generations – in the Highlands of Scotland the Gaelic language protected the knowledge. The Celtic materia medica was used in very sophisticated ways: for example, decoctions and infusions of herbal drinks were given as anaesthetics; instead of injections, poultices were made up and applied where the skin is thinnest, under the armpits and in the groin. (St Columba famously applied a soothing poultice to a young monk by placing it in his armpit.) But, despite the medical care, Roman and Celtic soldiers fought in the knowledge that even the slightest wound could kill and that most men did not die outright in battle but in a lingering agony hours, days or weeks afterwards.

In the middle of the first century BC Britain was a shifting patchwork of small kingdoms, each with its own political interests and priorities. Rome seemed a colossus by comparison, a juggernaut which had rolled over the vast territory of Gaul. Some Britons had crossed the Ocean to fight against Caesar’s legions alongside their Gallic neighbours, many knew that Rome was a world power, capable of any action, no matter how merciless, in pursuit of its aims. Still more will have seen the Empire as a golden opportunity. The trickle of luxury goods which had come into Britain from the Mediterranean spoke of wealth and glamour, and a much wider world.

For whatever reason the British kings did not attack again. Instead their envoys sought peace, promising hostages and freeing Commius, possibly in the hope that he might mediate. The British army, mostly levied from farms and settlements, melted back into the countryside leaving the native kings with only their warbands and charioteers.


Roman infantry training was tough. Those who failed to follow commands properly or show sufficient stamina were punished by being put on poor rations, which seemed to consist of a foul-smelling barley porridge. But it was vital that soldiers reacted instantly to commands in the heat and noise of battle. Roman legionaries had five basic formations. A single battleline was most common and, through its shield-wall, spears and short swords bristled. A double line was sometimes called to withstand the weight of a charge. There was also a square, not unlike that used by British armies in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The flying wedge was used in attack. Probably led by a centurion, a wedge charged at an enemy line and tried to smash through it, widening the breaking point as the wedge went in. Most famous was the testudo, the tortoise, with shields held overhead and to the sides. It was said that its strength was tested by having carts driven over it.

Four days after the battle on the beach, lookouts at last sighted the cavalry transports. Five hundred troopers would transform Caesar’s options. But a storm blew down the Channel and prevented the transports from landing, and a high tide had an even more devastating impact. It refloated the beached transports: some smashed into each other and onto the shore, others were swept out to sea. Suddenly Caesar’s expedition found itself dangerously exposed. The legionaries had brought little in the way of supplies, and food was fast running out. They were stranded, unable to get off the island and back to the sanctuary of Gaul. Seeing at first hand all that happened, the British envoys in the Romans’ camp stole away quietly to inform their kings that the gods were smiling.

Forced to send out forage parties into the Kent countryside to find food, Caesar was in a very precarious position. But once again luck and good soldiering came to the rescue. As the VII Legion was harvesting fields of ripe wheat, a British ambush erupted out of nearby woods. The Romans, many of them armed only with sickles, were quickly surrounded by charioteers and cavalry. Very fortunately a sharp-eyed lookout at a forward watchtower saw a cloud of dust rise in the distance, in the direction the VII Legion had gone. It was too much dust for marching men to make and Caesar quickly realised what had happened. With a small troop of riders brought by Commius, and his own men, he dashed to the rescue. With only a thousand men, a potentially disastrous outcome was averted. But more trouble was coming.

The British kings massed their host again and attacked the beachhead camp. The legions had time to form up in battle order outside the rampart and, in the close-quarter fighting which followed, the British were driven back and defeated. This time Caesar did not delay. Most of the transports had been repaired and the legions squeezed onto them and sailed back to Gaul. Hostages had been demanded but Caesar did not wait for them to be delivered. September often saw bad weather in the Channel – and enough risks had already been taken to stretch the favour of the gods beyond breaking point.

News of Caesar’s expedition electrified public opinion in Rome. What had in reality been a lucky escape from near disaster became a propaganda triumph. Rome had reached out to the very ends of the Earth. Her armies had crossed the dangers and mysteries of the Ocean and subdued the savage primitives who lived at the edge of the world. The Senate rejoiced and voted twenty days of public thanksgiving, five more than for the much more significant conquest of Gaul. Caesar’s many enemies were silenced. Marcus Porcius Cato embodied all of the stern old Republican virtues of honour and fairness, while attacking what he saw as Caesar’s wild ambition – a man who would be king! – and his disregard for the law. He probably spoke against him in the same Senate meeting which voted for the thanksgiving, and was probably drowned out by catcalls and insults. Pompey and Crassus, both rivals and immensely powerful and wealthy, had been elected consuls, the leading political offices in the Roman constitution, in 55 BC. But Caesar’s coup in reaching Britain, as far from Rome as it seemed possible to be, eclipsed them. How they must have seethed amid the celebrations.


Roman camps were usually temporary defended bivouacs thrown up by a detachment of soldiers at the end of a day’s march. A Roman fort was more permanent and the Latin word for it, castellum, is the root of our ‘castle’. Both camps and forts were laid out on a standard grid pattern on a reasonably flat site near a water source. Milecastles were small forts positioned at intervals of exactly one mile along a Roman wall. On Hadrian’s Wall, Cawfields milecastle is a monument to Roman uniformity and obstinacy. The site slopes steeply and must have been very rocky, but it was exactly one Roman mile from its neighbours on either side. Cawfield’s nothern gateway opens onto a sheer drop. There is a much better and flatter site 30 metres further to the west. But no, if it had to be a mile, exactly a mile from the next one, well, that was were it had to go.

The reaction to the expedition has much to say about the political atmosphere of the times. Britain began to occupy a special place in the collective imagination of Rome. Roman legions could march around the shores of the Mediterranean, to the deserts of the east, and north into the dark forests of Germany. But to reach across the Ocean at the edge of the world, to land and defeat the warriors of Britain, showed Rome at her very boldest and mightiest. Nowhere and nothing was beyond her power.

By the early years of the reign of Augustus, the first emperor and Julius Caesar’s heir, the expansion of the Empire had found divine support. The poet Virgil put these words in the mouth of Jupiter, Rome’s supreme god:

I set upon the Romans bounds neither of space nor of time: I have bestowed upon them empire without limit . . . to impose the ways of peace, to spare the defeated, and to crush those proud men who will not submit.


The Roman constitution evolved over an immense period and was very complex. It is the most likely extended explanation of why it was that Rome, an otherwise inconsequential central Italian settlement, came to be the pre-eminent European power for five hundred years, whose influence lasted long after its decline. Originally the city was governed by kings. Their tyrannical behaviour prompted a coup d’état, and from around 500 BC they were replaced by two elected magistrates known as consuls. Roman society remained rigidly hierarchical, and the consulship was at first the exclusive preserve of the patrician families, an aristocracy which had retained power despite the demise of the kings. They made up the membership of the Senate, originally an advisory council of elders (the name derives from senex, Latin for ‘an old man’). Other magistracies developed. Praetors were one step down from consuls, and below them aediles had legal power inside the city of Rome. The most junior magistrates were quaestors. As Rome grew, its patricians were forced to cede some power to the poorer citizens, the plebs. They could turn to a Tribune of the Plebs, who had the right to veto legislation. In times of emergency, one man could be appointed dictator, with absolute power for a term of six months. Religious affairs were in the care of the Pontifex Maximus, and below him and the others a forest of minor offices grew. The lawyer and orator Cicero developed the idea of the cursus honorum, a career path for ambitious men. But by then it was a bit too late. Once Augustus had established the power of the emperors, all of these magistracies became more or less honorific. The years were still named after the consuls who held office and, as with the modern honours system in Britain, people enjoyed fancy titles. Augustus obliged by having consuls elected for only a part of the year so that more men could hold the largely meaningless office.

All of this boundless, supposedly god-given ambition was founded on a remarkable phenomenon – the Roman army. One historian has characterised the history of the Republic and the Empire as the long, drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful process of political institutions attempting to keep pace with the extraordinary and continuing string of victories won by Rome’s soldiers.

They won because they were different. Every army that Rome faced in western Europe and around the Mediterranean was largely recruited from amateurs, part-time soldiers with an obligation to fight when their aristocracy called upon them. Great hosts were mustered against the legions, often out-numbering them by many times, but they were comparatively poorly equipped, untrained, frightened farmers doing their duty. Rome’s army was professional. Killing was its business. Its soldiers were well paid, well trained, well armed and very experienced. When the VII and X Legions faced the warhorns, the hail of insults and the massed ranks of the British army in Kent in 55 BC, they will not have blinked. In Gaul and elsewhere the legionaries had seen it all before. If they kept their discipline, remembered their training and fought as a unit, they would cut these hollering savages to pieces. And, almost always, they did.

It was the long drive for empire which forged the Roman army into a highly professional and deadly force. After Africa, Spain, Greece and Asia Minor had been conquered, the urgent need for an efficient, and permanent, military capability was recognised by the great general Gaius Marius. In 107 BC he was elected consul and immediately abolished the outdated property qualification needed to fight in the army. From landless men and his own supporters, Marius began recruiting full-time soldiers. Many signed up for sixteen years, an unheard-of commitment, and in that time grew experienced and hardy. Training became mandatory, equipment better and standardised, and clear organisation was imposed.

Like all talented tacticians, Marius saw mobility as a key to victorious campaigning. From the moment they joined their units, Roman soldiers were trained to march. For four months centurions put them through intensive square-bashing so that they instinctively marched in step and reacted instantly to commands. In battle this sort of collective conditioning could be crucial. To arrive at the battlefield quickly and in good order, recruits were put through a punishing schedule of route marching. Once trainee legionaries could march 30 kilometres in five hours, they were appalled to discover that they needed to maintain the same speed – but in full armour and carrying all their kit and equipment. On average this weighed about 50 kilograms. Before Marius’ reforms, the Roman army had been followed – and slowed down – by a baggage train of mules. After 107 BC the legionaries carried everything and began to call themselves Marius’ Mules.

Weaponry evolved and adapted at the same time. Most conscript armies, especially those raised amongst the Celtic peoples of Europe, used their large numbers in a simple but effective tactic – the furious charge. It worked for millennia, even after the introduction of muskets and cannons, and was last seen on British soil as late as 1746 at Culloden Moor. The Roman response was the javelin. Carried by each legionary, it had a long, slim and very sharp point attached to a wooden haft. As the enemy ran within range, a dense volley was thrown. Javelins broke up a charge but were not accurate enough to halt it. By the time survivors reached Roman battlelines, shields had locked together and the short sword known as the gladius was drawn. No more than 60 centimetres long, it was much more effective in close-quarter fighting than the long, slashing sword used by Celtic warriors. Thrusting, stabbing, pushing and staying together in a tight formation, the legions literally rolled over their enemies. Winning again and again, marching long distances quickly, Roman armies dominated western European warfare for 500 years.


Roman soldiers spent most of their time not fighting. Many were skilled tradesmen able to apply themselves to a wide variety of tasks. The most hated peace-time job was road-building. And in the early years of the province of Britain there was a great deal of that to do. Many men got out of breaking roadstone, digging ditches and laying paving by developing other skills and no doubt sucking up to officers. For example, if they found an inside job as a clerk, they moved from being a mere miles, or soldier, to becoming an immunis. The next step up the ladder was to the rank of principales, the lance-corporals of the Roman army. That meant one and a half times the pay of, say, an orderly in a century. Standard-bearers and optiones (second-in-command of a century – roughly equivalent to a sergeant) were on double pay and centurions got even more. In a legion of roughly 4,800 men there were ten cohorts. The first contained five double centuries and the remaining nine had six centuries each. The best that a common soldier could do in his legion was to rise to the rank of primus pilus, literally, the first spear, and in reality the senior centurion. Aristocrats held a monopoly on high command. The legate who led a legion was usually a senator, and his six staff officers were men from patrician families setting out on a career.

As professional soldiers who trained, lived, fought and died together, the legionaries developed a tremendously powerful esprit de corps. The sort of bravery shown by the standard-bearer of the X Legion on the Kentish beaches was by no means unusual. Three years later, Caesar’s men led an abortive attack in the Gaulish rebellion led by Vercingetorix. At Gergovia they were forced to retreat downhill and could have suffered terrible casualties. But the centurions of the VII and X Legions made a line and fought a brave rearguard action to allow their men down the slopes to safety. Forty-six centurions fell, but they prevented a disaster. Almost always the toughest soldiers in a legion and used to leading from the front, these men stood fast on the slopes at Gergovia, prepared to buy the safety of their comrades with their lives.

After the Marian reforms, loyalty became an immensely powerful bond, but it was loyalty to their generals which mattered to soldiers, far more than any loyalty to Rome itself. The state paid and equipped their legionaries but crucially, and catastrophically, refused to make any provision for their discharge or retirement. Instead commanders like Marius, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus bound their soldiers to themselves personally by promising to provide for each one of them when their army service was over. This was always expensive, and the need for cash to pay for veterans’ retirement, land for them to settle on and booty to help them enrich themselves was one of the most important motives behind continuing conquest.

Roman law was surprisingly inexact when it came to be applied to what the historian Tacitus called the pretium victoriae, the wages of victory. This vagueness allowed Caesar and others to become fabulously wealthy as they, nominally at least, acted in the interests of the state. When Gaul was overrun, fortunes were made and as the legions advanced they knew that military success would bring them booty now and a guaranteed retirement later. Their success bound them ever more closely to the likes of Caesar and also gave them powerful incentives to fight hard and earn the wages of victory.

Momentum developed naturally. It is difficult to discern much in the way of coherent policy from the Senate in Rome. The Empire expanded through accident and opportunism, but also because great men wished to become even greater. In Rome there was no meaningful distinction between soldiers and politicians. Senators led legions, generals were senators. Military and political success were largely the same thing. Julius Caesar needed to turn his attention to Britain because he had conquered Gaul. Like a shark he had constantly to move forward.

The reaction in Rome to what amounted to little more than an armed reconnaissance in 55 BC, and the loose ends left when the legions departed quickly, meant that Caesar had to return to Britain. A year was a very long time in politics, and a fresh expedition, perhaps a sustained conquest of the fabled island, would keep his name in the limelight. And, to feed Caesar’s coffers, there might be more tangible rewards. The imperial economy had an insatiable appetite for slaves, and war always produced plenty. Britain had mineral wealth: tin certainly, lead, and perhaps gold and silver. Corn was less shiny but always welcome to the quartermasters of the huge army in Gaul and the Rhine basin. But in truth it was prestige, the promise of glory, which drew Caesar back to the shores of the Channel.


The unseen, unheard and rarely recorded hands, muscles and brains which underpinned Roman society belonged to the vast number of slaves who lived all over the Empire. In Italy alone in the first century AD, it is thought that there were more than 3 million. With no rights of any kind, they were treated as objects, an instrumentum vocale, a talking tool, or, more brutally, a res, a thing. On Greek pottery, their distinctive shaved heads contrast with the aristocrats they are serving. A slave collar found around the neck of a skeleton carried the message ‘If captured return me to Apronianus, minister in the imperial palace . . . for I am a runaway slave.’ The Roman legal system only allowed slaves to give evidence if they had first been tortured. Otherwise what they said was thought to be inherently unreliable. Roman soldiers had slaves, and Britain was seen as an excellent source. A beautifully made iron chain with collars attached was found at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey. It had been designed to restrain a chain gang of five and it shows that native British aristocrats also had slaves.

During the winter some tactical lessons were learned. Transports were designed differently. More than 600 were built with a shallow draught to allow them to be beached more easily. To augment their sails and make them more manoeuvrable, banks of oars were added on each side. These modifications were important because the new expedition was planned on an altogether different scale. Five legions and 2,000 cavalry troopers would cross the Ocean in the summer of 54 BC. And Britain’s defenders could not hope to match such a force once they had gained the safety of the shore. But they had to gain it without all the problems of the previous year. Significantly several private vessels were to accompany the fleet. Merchants perhaps, people who hoped to profit from an assured success.

Archaeologists have not yet found the site of Caesar’s second landing, but it is likely to have been close to the first, on the beaches near Deal. Once ashore, Caesar attacked immediately. Having learned that the British had retreated inland, probably at the approach of such a large invasion force, he pursued them hard. With four legions, including the VII and the X, more than 20,000 men and 1,700 cavalry, Caesar at last found part of the British army drawn up behind a river. It was probably the Stour near modern Canterbury. The bulk of the native forces had taken up a defensive position behind the ramparts of a hillfort, almost certainly at Bigbury.

After his cavalry had scattered the skirmishers along the riverbank, Caesar launched the VII Legion in an assault on the fort. Under the protection of the testudo formation, where the legionaries locked their shields over their heads and sides to form a protective shell, the VII built a ramp up to the walls. After a sharp attack, the British fled. Sending his cavalry in only a brief pursuit, Caesar had his men build a marching camp. From there they began the business of subduing the countryside.

So far, so good. But familiar problems surfaced back at the base-camp on the Kentish coast. Despite the redesign of the transports and all the hard-learned lessons of the previous expedition, the same mistakes were made. Left riding at anchor out in the Channel roadsteads, the transport fleet was badly damaged in a storm. Belatedly, a huge ship-camp was dug and the fleet beached well above the high tideline. The new fort took ten days to raise.

Meanwhile the British kings had held a council and managed to suppress their differences in the face of the Roman threat. Cassivellaunus was appointed war-leader. The conflict quickly intensified and, as Caesar advanced through Kent towards the Thames, the British attacked at every opportunity, but were not tempted into pitched battle. When the Roman army halted at the end of a day’s march, Cassivellaunus saw his chance.

The digging of a temporary marching camp in hostile countryside was absolutely essential, but it presented a short period of dangerous exposure – despite elaborate precautions. As evening approached and the army halted, most of the legionaries deployed in battle order, facing the most likely direction of threat. Behind this protective screen, others dug a deep ditch (three and a half metres wide and two and a half deep) and built a rampart from the upcast. Each man carried two stakes sharpened at either end and with a narrow waist which allowed them to be easily tied together. Made from hard-wearing oak, the stakes might have been lashed in threes and set on top of the rampart like large caltrops. If each were tied to its neighbours, these spikey clusters would have made a very formidable obstacle to an enemy charge. Once one side of the camp was complete, the legionaries in battle order moved behind it, and more men could be released to complete the remaining three as quickly as possible.

Cassivellaunus’ soldiers attacked at that moment. And it was only with the aid of reinforcements that they were beaten back. But it was a hard fight, and one of Caesar’s senior officers, a tribune, was killed. Pressing on almost immediately through northern Kent, the Roman army arrived on the banks of the River Thames, their first really formidable natural obstacle. It is likely that Cassivellaunus was king of the Catuvellauni, and the river flowed through the heart of his territory. No doubt with local help, Caesar’s scouts found a ford, possibly a place now in the centre of modern London. When the Romans waded across the Thames, swept resistance aside and advanced northwards, the British commander changed tactics. Wisely refusing a set-piece battle (and disbanding the bulk of his army – it was harvest-time), he used chariots to skirmish and drove flocks and herds out of the line of march and beyond the reach of legionary foragers.

At this moment, when a long process of attrition threatened and lines of communication with base-camp seemed set to stretch to breaking point, Caesar brought domestic British politics into play. Some time before the invasion, Cassivellaunus had had the king of the Trinovantes killed. Their territory neighboured his own, and the removal of their ruler probably expanded his kingdom into East Anglia. The heir to the Trinovantian throne, Mandubracius, had fled to Gaul to seek Caesar’s support, and appears to have accompanied the Roman army in 54 BC. Once across the Thames, it seemed the right time to play this political card. With an agreement to restore Mandubracius, and presumably throw off Catuvellaunian control, the Trinovantes surrendered to Caesar, supplying hostages and much needed food and supplies.

Cassivellaunus countered with an audacious move. Showing that he had both good communications and a long military reach, he ordered four Kentish kings to combine forces and attack the Roman base-camp on the Channel shore. But they failed. Left to guard the precious transports, Quintus Arius and his men defended the ship-camp successfully and inflicted many casualties on the British.


In Western Europe a tradition of hierarchy in battle has grown up and it places the infantry, the foot soldiers, the squaddies, in a lowly position. This is almost entirely a consequence of the rise in the importance of cavalry, especially the heavy cavalry of the Middle Ages. It continued into the Victorian period, and even when the Light Brigade charged into the wrong valley it was considered somehow glorious. If the infantry had marched on the Russian guns, it would just have been thought daft. This pecking order is summed up by the word ‘infantry’. It is cognate to enfant in French, infante in Italian and in essence was a term for the boys, too young or too poor to afford a horse. This attitude would have made tough old centurions smile. For Rome the infantry were the elite, the core of the army, and flapping around the wings were the horse-boys, the cavalry.

Meanwhile Rome’s new Trinovantian allies had betrayed the location of Cassivelluanus’ headquarters to Caesar. Once they had broken through the defences – which appear to have been long and difficult to man – his soldiers were no doubt delighted to find herds of cattle.

It was enough. Cassivellaunus sued for peace, and once again Commius mediated. Time was pressing hard on Caesar: it was late September, and his commanders in Gaul had sent word that rebellion was in the air. Punitive terms would take too long and might be difficult to enforce. Hostages, an annual tribute and the security of the Trinovantes were quickly agreed, and the Roman army embarked once more to brave the dangers of the Ocean.

This time there were no celebrations in Rome, no vote of public thanksgiving from the Senate. Caesar’s political enemies had regrouped. The great orator and lawyer Cicero had been in favour of the expedition to Britain but was becoming increasingly uneasy about Caesar’s ambitions. By a stroke of good fortune, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, had been a staff officer in 54 BC and he wrote letters home full of disappointment at the lack of booty. In the Senate Cicero could report that there was no silver to be had, no cartloads of loot, only slaves, hostages and a vague promise of tribute. The pyrotechnics of 55 BC and the daring crossing of the Ocean had turned out to be a damp squib. Added to these disappointments was a sense of non-fulfilment. Some of Caesar’s actions in Britain hinted that he had planned a thorough conquest (of the south, at least) and was in the early stages of establishing a new province. The whispers of insurrection in Gaul which took him back across the Channel seem to have been an unwelcome interruption.

It would be almost a century before a Roman legionary would again set foot on British soil. Between 54 BC and 50 BC there was almost continuous war in Gaul as Caesar’s army criss-crossed the centre of the province suppressing opposition. After the murder of the great man in 44 BC, civil war turned Rome in on itself, and even when Augustus had established himself as the first emperor, it was to Germany that he directed his legions.

Propagandists and apologists nevertheless wrote of Britain as though it was a semi-detached satellite, not a formal part of the Empire but certainly within its control. Rome had only to reach out and take the island if the need arose. As a facet of his self-appointed role as Caesar’s heir, Augustus felt that he should complete what his uncle had started. Three expeditions were planned. But in 34 BC, 28 BC and 27 BC other priorities prevented the legions embarking at Boulogne.

While British kings will not have recognised it, the Greek geographer and historian Strabo’s view was that there was no need for the Romans to cross the Channel and conquer: Britain was too weak to pose any military threat in Europe (perhaps implying that that had not been true in the past), and in any case the tax yielded by trade was already substantial and cost little effort to collect. So why bother?

Despite this patent political spin, Strabo’s observations had some substance. British kings showed themselves acutely sensitive to events inside the Empire. The Catuvellaunians had ultimately ignored Caesar’s insistence on the independence of the Trinovantes and overrun the kingdom. But when Augustus was in northern Gaul in 16 BC, the Catuvellaunian king, Tasciovanus, thought it prudent to withdraw. And, as disaster struck Rome in AD 9, when three legions were ambushed and annihilated in the German forests, the Catuvellaunians promptly retreated.

The British economy also saw some profound shifts as it reacted to Roman imperial policy. After the expeditions of 55 BC and 54 BC, the major points of contact with continental commerce moved eastwards. Much evidence of a busy trade in Roman and European goods had been found at Hengistbury Head, near modern Bournemouth, and in the kingdom of the Durotriges. Business appears to have dried up there and the points of entry shift to the Kent and especially the Essex coasts. Around AD 14 Strabo reported that British farmers were producing and exporting a grain surplus, and their customers were almost certainly the Roman legions who had been campaigning in the Rhine basin for more than twenty years. It was much easier to handle bulk commodities like grain by sea and river than overland, and the Essex coast probably thrived as business boomed. British coins minted during this period sometimes have an ear of corn stamped on one side.

On the other side of the coin the name of a substantial British king occasionally appears, someone whose name was remembered long enough to gain him literary immortality. Shakespeare called him Cymbeline, but the mintmasters spelled his name as Cunobelin. The name means ‘the Hound of Belenos’, a Celtic fire god whose presence flickers in the bonfires of the Beltane celebrations on May Day. King of the Catuvellauni, Cunobelin had extended his grip over the East Midlands and most of the south-east of Britain, and had probably become wealthy through control of the corn trade. He reigned for a long time, probably from AD 5 to AD 41, and appears to have ruled with caution and determination. After the final takeover of the kingdom of the Trinovantes, he moved his capital place from St Albans to Colchester, perhaps to be closer to the source of his wealth. Suetonius, the historian and former Director of Chancery for the Emperor Hadrian, hailed Cunobelin as Britannorum Rex, King of the British, and it may be that his writ ran further than his formal rule.

In his superb account of the campaigns in Gaul and Britain, Caesar characterised Cunobelin’s kingdom as the richest part of the island. Its people were like the Gauls he knew so well. And indeed there is evidence that recent migrations had crossed from the continent. From the modern country which bears their name, the Belgae settled in the south of Britain, and some historians believe that they supplanted the aristocracies and royal families of several native kingdoms. In eastern Yorkshire a people known as the Parisii came and their burials strongly suggest a recent European origin. The first century BC coinage issued by British kings certainly shows continental influence, although it is uncertain that a money economy operated in any meaningful sense.

Of those living beyond the fertile cornlands of the southern lowlands, Caesar has been dismissive: The people of the interior for the most part do not sow corn but live on milk and meat and dress in skins. The impression of a more primitive society, one which had had much less contact with Roman Europe and the civilising south, is reinforced by the fact that the peoples of the north were mostly pastoralists. They walked the ancient paths of transhumance, moving their flocks and herds up the hill trails and onto the summer pasture, and then back down to the wintertowns in late autumn. To the city-dwelling Romans, they will have seemed like semi-nomads: primitives who wore skins and lived out on the windy hills. Certainly their summer shielings will have seemed little more than shacks and their more permanent settlements unimpressive.


On memorials and inscriptions on stately buildings the date is often expressed in Roman numerals. It takes time to work out the bits of subtraction and addition, but the basis of ancient arithmetic is very simple. It relates to our hands. Ten fingers (OK, eight fingers and two thumbs) contain most of the basic Roman numbers. I is one finger held up, II is two and so on. V is five and represents the nick between the thumb and index finger. X is ten and is both index fingers crossed. The English counting system is also based on ten but the Celts had a twenty-base system. They used their toes as well. Fichead, in Scots Gaelic, is twenty. Dha fhichead is two twenties or forty (four tens), and ceithir fhichead is four twenties or eighty (eight tens). Simple.

Such attitudes were engrained in an Italian aristocrat like Julius Caesar. The ploughman always had a greater status than the herdsman. These farmers had formed the backbone of Rome’s old citizen armies, and a heroic figure of the past, the dictator Cincinnatus, had twice laid down his plough to lead campaigns against the enemies of the city, and then returned to his farm once the battles were won. By contrast, tending to flocks and herds was the work of slaves. But to move from Caesar’s cultural biases and simple observations to the assumption of a lesser, unsophisticated society would be a mistake. The kingdoms of the north were powerful, they held territory which the Romans had great difficulty in subduing, and they outlasted them.

When Cunobelin died in AD 41 (or perhaps AD 42), the political balance tilted. The emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, had followed Tiberius onto the throne. But his short reign was disfigured by crazy, impulsive acts. Not the least of these was a planned invasion of Britain. When Adminius, an exiled son of Cunobelin, arrived at Caligula’s court in AD 39, he persuaded the Emperor that Britain could be easily conquered – and he himself could of course be made king of the Catuvellauni. But as the invasion force mustered at Boulogne a year later, the legionaries refused to embark and mutinied. Caligula’s reaction was bizarre. Here is Suetonius’ account:

Finally, as if he was about to embark on a war, he drew up his battlelines and set out his catapults and other artillery on the Ocean shore. When no one had the least idea of what he intended, he suddenly gave the order that they were to gather sea-shells, filling their helmets and the folds of their tunics. These were what he termed spoils owed by the Ocean to the Capitol and Palatine. And, as a monument to his victory, he had a very high tower constructed, which would, like the Pharos, send out beams of light to guide the course of ships by night. As if he had exceeded all previous models of generosity in announcing a donative for the troops of a hundred denarii per man, he told them, ‘Depart in happiness, depart in wealth.’

It is not difficult to imagine what the soldiers said to each other as they departed with all that wealth and their sea-shells. Despite the charades, it is likely that much of the preparatory work for an invasion had been done. The Roman fondness for organisation will have meant that the legions would not have reached the harbour without all being in readiness – transports, military intelligence and supplies. After Caligula’s inevitable assassination, his successor determined to follow through the aborted plan. In AD 42 Claudius had been seriously threatened by a coup which had only fizzled out at the last minute, and to bolster his authority, he needed a military success. And quickly. A triumph to rival those of his glorious predecessors? Britain fitted the bill. Claudius could complete what had been begun by the deified Julius. Glory waited on the shores of the Channel. And the political weather was favourable.

With the death of Cunobelin, his sons, Togidumnus and Caratacus, had divided the Catuvellaunian kingdom between them. The crack Roman legions stationed on the Rhine were a formidable concentration of power which needed to be broken up before another ambitious soldier could organise a coup – and an expedition to Britain would do just that. And another dispossessed British king, Verica, gave Claudius a convenient excuse for intervention, a casus belli. In the summer of AD 43, all seemed set fair.

Four legions had marched to Boulogne, the II Augusta, the IX Hispana, the XIV Gemina and the XX Valeria. They were under the command of a notable general, the former govenor of Pannonia (most of modern Hungary), Aulus Plautius, and he had laid meticulous plans. And then, on the shore at Boulogne, everything unravelled. The legions mutinied again, refusing to board the transports, seemingly terrified of the ancient dangers of crossing the Ocean and passing over the edges of the world. They would not shift.

All the efforts of Aulus Plautius were in vain. No inducement or threat would move the obdurate legionaries off dry land and onto the transports waiting in the estuary at Boulogne. When news of the mutiny reached Rome, Claudius himself did not take the risk of being humiliated by his own soldiers. Instead he sent a freed slave, Narcissus, who had risen very high in the new imperial civil service. The sheer weight and complexity needed to run Rome’s vast empire demanded the creation of a substantial bureaucracy to deal with it. At first this resembled a vast household department more than an apparatus of state. Freed slaves or freedmen were often appointed by aristocratic families to run their estates and business affairs, and Narcissus’ rise seems to have been very much in that tradition. In any case Claudius could trust men who owed him their position entirely rather than rely on aristocrats who had their own independent means, power base and ambitions.

When Narcissus arrived at Boulogne, he insisted to Aulus Plautius that he be allowed to address the legions directly. When Roman commanders spoke to their armies, they climbed onto a platform known as a tribunal so that all could see them. Twenty thousand legionaries and perhaps a further 20,000 auxiliaries made up the invasion force of AD 43. So that commanders could be heard by such a huge assembly, they used professional heralds to repeat their words. With specially trained voices, their words could carry far enough. But when Narcissus, a freed slave and not a soldier, appeared on the tribunal usually occupied by aristocratic generals, the soldiers grew angry and the mood darkened. Then someone made a joke. They shouted Io Saturnalia!, a reference to the annualwinter festival when slaves exchanged roles with their masters for a day. The affront of being lectured on loyalty by a former slave turned into a piece of daftness, and the atmosphere of tension broke. Amidst the laughter, Narcissus no doubt announced more inducements and made more appeals to nobler instincts, promising glory as the men walked in Caesar’s footprints. Whatever the mixture of motives and circumstances, the embarkation of the invasion fleet began almost at once.


In Latin a rostrum was the beak or prow of a warship. Its English meaning of ‘platform’ developed because of what happened to the beaks of warships captured by the Romans. They set them up as trophies in the Forum and speakers got into the habit of standing on the rostra so that a listening crowd could see them. News was disseminated from these platforms by orators who were often in the service of different generals and senators. Political spin is nothing new.

Its destination was not to be the beaches near Deal used in 55 BC and 54 BC. Much had been learned about Britain’s geography in the intervening century, and Aulus Plautius’ sea-captains sailed further north, to what is now Richborough in north-east Kent. It looked different 2,000 years ago. The Isle of Thanet was a genuine island, cut off from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. Richborough was probably also an island, and the fleet entered the eastern end of the narrow channel and made for the island. Again learning from history, once the transports had disembarked, they were moored in the sheltered anchorage. Traces of the ditching dug around the temporary ship-camp have been found. These now lie about a mile inland from the Channel coast.

Perhaps misled by the news of a mutiny at Boulogne, perhaps awed by the scale of the army wading ashore in the Kentish marshlands, perhaps expecting another fiasco, the British kings at first kept their distance. Here is part of the classical historian Dio Cassius’s excellent account of the invasion of AD 43:

. . . they melted into the marshes and forests, hoping that they would wear them down in fruitless effort, so that they would sail back after an abortive mission, as had happened in the case of Julius Caesar.

Plautius experienced a deal of trouble in searching out their forces, but when he did find them, he defeated first Caratacus, and then Togidumnus.

Advancing further into Kent, probably to the line of the River Medway:

. . . which the barbarians thought the Romans would not be able to cross without a bridge, and consequently they were encamped on its bank opposite in a rather careless fashion. Plautius sent across the German auxiliaries, who were quite used to swimming easily even in full armour across the swiftest currents. These fell upon the enemy unexpectedly, but they did not shoot mainly at the men: rather they set about wounding the horses which drew the chariots and, when these were thrown into confusion, the mounted warriors were endangered too. Plautius then sent across Flavius Vespasianus (the man who later gained the imperial power), with his brother, Sabinus, who had a subordinate commission on his staff. They too got across the river somehow and killed many of the barbarians who were not expecting them. The rest, however, did not take to flight, but on the next day they joined issue with them again. The battle was indecisive, until Hosidius Geta, who had just missed being taken prisoner, defeated them so soundly that he exceptionally was granted triumphal ornaments, though he had not been consul.

From there the Britons retreated to the River Thames in the area where it empties into the Ocean and at flood-tide forms a lake.

In the first century AD great rivers like the Thames had not been channelled between built-up banks, and their courses were often very wide and changeable. At Southwark, for example, opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, the river flowed in a series of channels at least 700 metres further south, creating several river-islands. At high tide the Thames could be as much as a kilometre wide, presenting a real obstacle to an advancing army.

Aulus Plautius relied on his German auxiliaries. They were Batavian cavalry originating from the Rhine delta, soldiers well used to crossing rivers. These regiments were recruited from recently conquered provinces and were often led by their own chieftains. Roman policy tried to remove fighting men from an area of potential unrest and post them well out of the way elsewhere in the Empire. When the Batavians attacked the British encampment on the far bank of the Medway, they will have shown skills which seem acrobatic to us now. Throwing javelins and probably firing arrows from the backs of their small ponies, they were able to steer them with their legs and stay wedged into the saddle. Stirrups would gallop into European history much later, with the arrival of the Huns in the fourth century. Roman cavalry troopers did expect to fall off or be knocked off because remounting was an essential – and spectacular – part of cavalry training. It is the origin of that well-worn piece of school gymnastic equipment, the vaulting horse. Roman cavalrymen used it to practise remounting both from the back, in classic manner, and also from the sides at various angles. But, unlike vaulting horses, real ones were usually moving in battle, often very quickly. The writer Arrian claimed that well-trained cavalrymen could vault onto their ponies in full armour, while they were cantering – slowly presumably.


The application of modern ethical standards to history is inevitable. Even though historians go to some trouble to avoid value judgements, few fail to characterise Roman culture as sophisticated or civilised, particularly while contrasting it with the more primitive people that the Romans conquered, like the native British who were, well, uncivilised. It is a distinction which does not bear examination. The Romans were utterly barbaric in their ruthlessness, slaughtering hundreds of thousands as a matter of imperial policy. They even took some trouble to make a show out of all that appalling slaughter. When he defeated Decebalus, the Dacian/Romanian king, in AD 105, the Emperor Trajan sent 50,000 captives back to Rome to be butchered by gladiators in the circuses for the amusement of spectators. Other massacres routinely took place all over the Empire, especially when new provinces were incorporated. And the Romans did not hesitate when it came to each other. In the civil wars between Marius and Sulla rival factions murdered many thousands. When the Senate met in 82 BC they could barely hear themselves speak because ‘the clatter of arms and the groans of the dying were distinctly heard in the Temple of Bellona where Sulla was holding a meeting’. Augustus was a famously cold and ruthless killer. When he, Mark Anthony and Lepidus held power as the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC, more than 300 senators and 2,000 other aristocrats were slaughtered. One of them was Cicero and it was ordered that his head and hands be cut off and spitted on spikes displayed on the rostra in the Forum. Very civilised.

While the Batavians and their ponies were swimming the Thames, another part of the army marched upriver and was able to cross by a bridge, perhaps a pontoon bridge anchored at a narrow stretch of the river. At this point in the campaign, Aulus Plautius appears to have got into some difficulty. In pursuits across what sounds like the Essex marshes, he lost a large number of men and was forced to retreat behind the line of the Thames.

His prudence was also political. So that the Emperor could take an active part in the conquest of Britain and claim a share – the lion’s share – of the glory, Claudius had instructed his commander to pause and send for him before the decisive assault. Sailing from Rome to Marseilles and then travelling overland to either the Biscay or Channel coasts, Claudius arrived on the banks of the Thames to lead his legions into history.

It was mid August AD 43, high summer in the south of England. The Roman invasion army of four legions and many regiments of auxiliaries was encamped at a place now buried by the buildings of central London. It is very likely that Aulus Plautius had halted at a crossing of the Thames, a vital strategic location which he could secure and protect. When Claudius and the imperial retinue arrived at the gates of the camp, British spies will have been amazed. Not at the detachments of the Praetorian Guard led by their commander, Rufrius Pollio, not at the endless number of clerks, their records and the household servants, not even at the splendour of the imperial court. Those watching the coming of the Emperor will have been amazed at the huge grey creatures plodding up the road from Kent. For Claudius had brought elephants.


No Roman ever said ‘Hail Caesar!’. Despite the instincts of scriptwriters of Hollywood ‘sword and sandal’ epics, Gaius Julius Caesar’s friends and colleagues would have called him Gaius. Or sir. Free Roman citizens usually had three names, known as a ‘praenomen’, a ‘nomen’ and a ‘cognomen’. The first was chosen from a traditional list of about twelve possibilities such as Marcus, Lucius, Servius, Gnaeus or Publius. The emperor who built the Wall was Publius Aelius Hadrianus and, before he became too grand, he was called Publius. The nomen was the surname or family name. The dynasty of emperors who followed Caesar was known as the Julians and then the Julio-Claudians. If Hadrian had had children, his dynasty would have been the Aelians. The cognomen was used of people when they were not present and often derived from a nickname. Caesar originally meant ‘hairy’, which was ironic since Julius was bald. Hadrianus might have meant ‘dark one’, or more prosaically that the family originated from Hadria in northern Italy.

From the time of the Punic Wars and the spectacular campaigns of Hannibal in Italy, war-elephants had been terrifyingly familiar to Roman armies. First used in India and then by Alexander the Great, they had a simple tactical value: fear. Trumpeting, thundering so that the earth shook, elephants could be made to charge – or stampede. It appears that these normally placid great animals were prone to panic. Either way, they could devastate an enemy battleline. Standing at least 3.5 metres at the shoulder, carrying a howdah, directed by a mahout, their mere presence on a battlefield loosened the resolve of the men facing them. But if elephants could be manoeuvred, their charge could be decisive. Hannibal had a favourite, Sarus, meaning ‘the Syrian’, and he was evidently huge and fearless. Charging into enemy lines, he could scatter hundreds of men at a time and, where he led, his herd no doubt thundered after him. The British had seen nothing like Claudius’ elephants.

Once across the Thames, it is not clear where Aulus Plautius and his emperor led their soldiers. But whatever was done was done quickly – and decisively. Claudius needed to recross the Channel to Gaul before the bad weather of mid to late September. The gaggle of senators who accompanied him to Britain to witness the military success of their great army and its elephants will not have wished to linger in these chilly northern latitudes. The invasion force advanced into Essex.

This was significant in itself. They had gone further than Caesar – and perhaps they would do better. In the century between the first expeditions and the Claudian invasions, the army had changed and become even more professional. In 55 BC most of the legionaries were Italians but, as the Empire expanded, the legionaries grew more cosmopolitan. And soldiering became more attractive. Binding the army ever closer to his family – what would become the Julio-Claudian dynasty – Augustus improved pay and conditions of service, committing especially to a comfortable retirement. The auxiliary regiments became integral, and the Praetorians were formally established as the imperial guard. One of their prime responsibilities was to police the city of Rome. In the provinces, particular legions and auxiliaries were posted as garrisons on a semi-permanent basis. Of the legions camped on the banks of the Thames in AD 43, the II Augusta, the IX Hispana and the XX Valeria were to remain in Britain for many generations.

Aulus Plautius and Claudius appear to have run into hard fighting in Essex, although no single pitched, set-piece battle is mentioned in any detail by Dio Cassius: . . . engaging the enemy who had gathered together to block his [Claudius’] advance, he defeated them in battle and captured Camulodunum, which had been the capital of Cunobelin. Now modern Colchester, the city’s ancient name gives a hint of its status as the prime target of the Roman campaign north of the Thames. Camulodunum means ‘the Fortress of the War-God’. Unlike most British Celtic deities, Camulos appears to have been widely worshipped, with dedications as far north as the Clyde. Archaeologists have confirmed that Cunobelin’s capital was a powerful sacred centre dedicated to the war-god worshipped by British warriors, who will have prayed hard for victory. Its fall would have been a catastrophe. Bounded by long runs of ditching which enclosed a sanctuary and a royal enclosure, the compound had an intense, even magical importance. The fires of Celtic festivals will have burned there in the winter’s dark at the turning points of the year. Sacrifices of propitiation will have been offered and all the drama of royal and priestly ritual will have focused behind the ramparts of the Fortress of the War-God.

The Romans desecrated it immediately. A fort was built by the gates, and inside the sanctuary, the holy of holies, a temple to the cult of the imperial family was ultimately erected. After the shock of defeat, this terrible affront left deep resentments which would continue to simmer.

Camulodunum was equally attractive for more everyday reasons. What had brought Cunobelin and his court to the Essex coast was the corn trade. From Camulodunum he could control it more readily and reap the harvest of the tax revenues as shiploads left to cross the North Sea and feed the legions on the Rhine. Now Claudius and Aulus Plautius had taken over this vital hub and no doubt the corn grew cheaper. Some of the legions of the Rhine had come to consume it in situ.


The greatest honour on offer to a victorious Roman general was a triumph, a huge procession through the streets of Rome. After Claudius enjoyed his in AD 44, there were fewer and fewer. An ‘ovation’ was a lesser award and, on his return from Britain, Aulus Plautius was granted one – the last, as it happened. But triumphal ornaments appear to have continued. These were insignia given to soldiers involved in a great military success. They could also be awarded medals, called ‘phalerae’, which took the form of metal discs displayed on the chest. A crescent-shaped neckpiece, a residual item of Roman armour, was copied by German armies of the modern era, and soldiers in Hitler’s Wehrmacht wore them as they went into battle.

There followed a revealing sequence of events. On the triumphal arch erected in Rome in AD 51 to advertise and glorify Claudius’ personal achievement in conquering Britain, the submission of eleven kings is recorded. It is almost certain that this ceremony of subjugation took place after the capture of Colchester. One of these kings had travelled a long way. A later historian sheds a little light: Claudius, wrote Eutropius, added to the Empire some islands lying in the Ocean beyond Britain, which are called the Orkneys. This remarkable reference has been thought to be the result of confusion, probably a scribal error. The Emperor was in Britain for only sixteen days. How could news of Roman victories reach Orkney, and its king travel south to submit to Claudius, inside such a tight timetable?

Archaeologists have discovered that there was no mistake. Sherds from a Roman amphora have been found at the impressive broch-village of Gurness on the Orkney mainland – and not just any old amphora but a type which had become obsolete by AD 60. These particular containers had been used to transport a special liqueur probably only consumed by aristocrats – and kings. The nearest example of the same type of amphora was found at Colchester, or Camulodunum.

An Orkney king did come south in AD 43, and his presence at Claudius’ moment of triumph had been planned, even stage-managed. Roman diplomacy had reached far to the north and supplied a grateful emperor with a valuable piece of propaganda, something people would remember. Not only had he exceeded the deeds of the deified Julius in actually conquering the island, Claudius’ power stretched even beyond the Ocean beyond Britain! Right to the very edge of the world. The Orkney submission had no other possible meaning or value, and no doubt rewards far greater than amphorae of fancy liqueur were handed over.

As Claudius crossed the Channel again and hurried south through Gaul with all the senators who had witnessed the Orkney king bowing before the might of Rome, he will have been savouring the prospect of his triumph. Through the streets of the city and the cheering crowds it would glitter and shimmer in the sunshine. On a chariot the victorious emperor would stand, a laurel wreath held over his head by a man who whispered Remember! Thou art mortal. Claudius took the title Britannicus and settled down to govern his vast territories with far more authority than he could have imagined when the Praetorian Guard dragged him onto the throne two years before. News of the conquest of Britain and the islands beyond it crackled through the length and breadth of the Empire, triumphal arches being erected as far east as Asia Minor. A letter, written in Greek, from Claudius survives. It thanks a troupe of travelling acrobats for a golden crown they sent him.

Britain had become Britannia, part of the Empire, its symbolic importance great, and its place in imperial history a turning point – for Claudius at least. The new province would last almost four hundred years, but not before a struggle.

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